Initial 2: New Stage Review

It would be easy to write off action adventure Initial 2: New Stage as a cheap Chinese knockoff. The game’s hack and slash action and overall tone would love nothing more than to be NieR: Automata. Its heroine even sports white hair and can wield different weapons just like the iconic 2B. In comparison, though, Initial 2 is lacking in scope, presentation, technical performance, depth, characterization and story. So, it’s just a cheap Chinese knockoff, right? Not really. Through cracks of choppy frame rate and subpar screen resolution maintaining the hyperactive gameplay, Initial 2 shows sincere passion towards game making even though the developer Restory Studio has been lacking in everything what star developers could afford. Only nine guys made the game with a shoe-string budget so it can’t compete with the best but the effort alone is commendable. And then some.

Philosophia Academy and Scientia Empire have been locked in a war for a decade. No one really cares why, it’s a status quo that both sides have grown accustomed to. An apparently mad General Nihil has risen to power in Scientia after their emperor and princess have gone missing. Belvia, the captain of Philosophia Academy’s Trio 9, is a 1st class Iudex soldier who is joined on the field by a fellow 1st classer Veritas and a young and naïve Sera who is still in a progress of ranking up to her superiors. While sent on different field missions, the trio discovers that not everything is what it seems. During a journey towards the secret lost to both sides of the war, Belvia and co. has to face the most powerful generals of the Empire. Maybe there’s more to them than sees the eye, too, as tides of war can take unexpected turns.

Belvia hurries through all-too linear levels and fights against almost endless waves of empire’s replicant soldiers. The story dictates whether she’s by herself or fighting along with Sera and Veritas who are controlled quite commendably by the AI. There are several boss fights dotted across the game’s ten story chapters that always manage to spice up the samey action. Even though Initial 2 resembles a Japanese action-RPG, it’s extremely streamlined. There are no quests, experience points, level ups, skill tree, inventory, items or vendors. So, the game is raced through in a pretty straightforward manner but still, the gameplay has extra depth to it. Belvia has four different weapons, unlocked during the story, that she can switch between on the fly; her bread and butter academy sword, a two-handed sword for wiping out masses, gauntlets for some heated mano a mano and a bow for ranged attacks, especially handy in kiting the boss enemies. Chips Belvia collects along the way allow several special attacks that are mapped to four active slots, while one passive chip enhances her abilities, like boosting weapon damage or getting a fraction of health back when dealing damage. All in all, very NieR-ish, although more limited.

That’s not the end of NieR: Automata references, as the blisteringly fast and super-responsive fighting action of Initial 2 is very reminiscent of PlatinumGames’ and Yoko Taro’s modern classic. The combat is simple yet deep, easy to get into but fun to master. Belvia’s most important move is her very intuitive dodge that becomes a second nature to use. It has no recovery animation, cancels everything you’re doing, and is followed up by a full run speed for a fast movement across playfield. Switching between light and heavy attacks mount up to versatile combos to stunlock enemies and chip their health away. Target lock is flexible but outside boss fights, it’s not mandatory to use. During mass scraps you want to constantly change the attack direction in mid-combo instantly. Much like 2B, Belvia zips and dashes between enemies and slices and dices them with her weaponry, a display of sublime skill and style - not only hers but yours, too. The bow is something 2B didn’t have and once unlocked, it will be a weapon of choice for the boss fights, a steady ranged damage dealer while diminutive Sera tanks the bosses (Veritas is also a ranger with his silvery guns). It may come as a surprise after all the comparisons I have made to NieR: Automata that the action bliss of Initial 2 is actually derived from the developer’s previous title The Initial. It was more focused a game as it featured a straightforward three-hours action romp with a sexy school girl wielding a samurai sword and cutting down everyone standing in her way.

Initial 2: New Stage reaches out for more epic scope and a full-scale narration over its predecessor while speeding up the intense action, too. It’s most curious that we have seen two Chinese fantasy games converted to the Western audiences this year. A massive historic RPG Sword & Fairy 6 was a throughout Chinese affair with its intriguing and involving story but Initial 2 trades its Chinese identity for a Japanese-style hack and slash action and storytelling. In fact, the game has no native Chinese voice acting at all as it’s dubbed in Japanese and English. The latter can boast with having no other than Kira Buckland, NieR: Automatas’s 2B’s English performer, voicing the heroine Belvia. However, the Japanese dub doubles it as it has the lovely singer, actress and voice performer Maaya Uchida in Belvia’s role. Sera, on the other hand, is performed by the veteran voice actor and singer Rie Kugimiya, perhaps best known for the video game enthusiasts as Persona 4’s Rise Kujikawa. Obviously, I went for the Japanese voices.

Art direction is pretty cool, from Trio 9’s intricately detailed uniforms to the futuristic premises of the Philosophia academy, but unfortunately Unity really isn’t the best engine for the game’s fast-paced gameplay. Everything moves rapidly but skip frames doing so which results in a stuttering overall image. It doesn’t hamper the gameplay, though, but the looks are made worse by a low screen resolution with absolutely no anti-aliasing to smooth out jaggies. The environments look like something out of a budget PlayStation 2 title at best. The animation is smooth, slender and agile although character models themselves are a bit lifeless. The music is very professionally made (Restory Studio even got Emi Evans of NieR fame to sing a song!) but the score doesn’t always fit the overall tone of chapters and thus can get repetitive. The English localization is a mess. Cutscenes are subtitled passably but the unvoiced NPC dialogue is google-translated trash with no editing whatsoever. It really hurts the lore and the world building when you’re forced to guess what the horrible translations are trying to say.

Taking into account all the game’s glaring shortcomings, I understand that the people used to polished and slick blockbusters don’t even want to take a look it. Still, the game must have something going for it because when I sat down to play it, I completed it in a one sitting (save a couple of toilet breaks) that took about eight hours or so. I can’t say if the game was too easy or is that entirely subjective notion. I like fast-paced action games that demand quick reflexes and maybe that’s the reason why I gobbled Initial 2 up with such an appetite. After all, there never are enough games featuring blitzkrieg action that requires according skills from the player.

After a full playthrough of the story, a set of extra modes are unlocked. If you thought that the boss fights didn’t present enough challenge during the campaign, the boss rush might make you think otherwise. In practice mode you can hone your skills and tower challenge has multiple enemy waves to defeat in a time limit. You can also replay the game’s chapters and this time, your performance in them is scored. However, the coolest Easter egg like forever is the initial mode, a virtual gallery where you run Belvia’s sexy protoype through an expedition decorated with the game’s concept art and installations of story characters frozen in complementary or post-game set-ups. Even though the accompanying text of gallery items is again google-translated, the initial mode nonetheless gives a wonderful insight into making of the game. This is something other developers should definitely copy! It also tells about sincerity towards the fans without whom the developers couldn’t exist, a fact they fully acknowledge (and they can count me as a new fan, too!).

All in all, Initial 2: New Stage is an intriguing title. Although it’s technically more than rough around the edges and the localization is a hot mess, the game is not just a knockoff of similar, bigger titles. There’s honesty in how Restory Studio has wanted to a make a cool, Japanese-like hack and slash action with a meaningful narrative to complement the gameplay. The story might be naïve when it stresses friendship that reaches over hostile boundaries but we really need something like that in our dreadful world, don’t we? To fully appreciate Initial 2, you will need a certain state of mind and shouldn’t care about finer technicalities. Don’t look too much into the overall score, either, as Initial 2 is one of best gaming experiences I have had this year.

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.